The above map has made the rounds on social media for the last several months, invoked as evidence for a failing education system.
In fact, the graphic deceives more than it informs.
The map’s creators clearly explained their methodology: “We used the U.S. Census to get the numbers on each state’s high school graduation rate, and then compared those numbers to the education index of each country in the world, provided by the United Nations Development Program.”
Unfortunately, graduation rates are a poor measure of educational quality. Certainly, finishing school is better than dropping out, no matter where you live.
But the map’s argument is absurd. Educational standards and graduation requirements vary radically between states and countries. The fact that two places have similar school completion rates tells us almost nothing about the content and quality of the learning involved.
Moreover, states and countries use very different formulas to calculate graduation rates. Some jurisdictions blatantly cook the books. You can easily inflate graduation rates by lowering standards or simply by undercounting kids who do not finish school.
Mostly, the map makes our schools look worse than they really are. Idaho and Colombia have comparable graduation rates, but Idaho ranks at or above the U.S. average in reading and math, and American students score significantly higher than Colombians on international tests of those skills. On those same assessments, Californians crush Chileans, Texans trounce Turks and Vermonters vanquish Swedes.
In many cases, the countries shown have such poor education systems that they save face by not participating in those international tests. Thus, despite their similar graduation rates, it is a sure bet that kids in Nevada read and reckon better than Ghanaians, that Louisianans outperform Kenyans, and that Mississippi students are more academically proficient than the children of Swaziland.
In one case, the map implausibly overrates a state’s public schools. Washington and Hong Kong have similar graduation rates, and Evergreen State students slightly outperform the U.S. average, but they do not come close to Hong Kong’s world-beating test scores.
Sometimes, through dumb luck, the map gets it about right. Graduation rates and student performance are roughly comparable in New Hampshire and Finland, in Colorado and the Netherlands, and in Virginia and Switzerland.
But on the whole, the map is worthless.
What self-appointed education authority would unleash such deceptive propaganda on an unsuspecting world?
Answer: HomeSnacks, which bills itself as a “Real Estate Infotainment” site.
This is not an isolated attack. Because good public education enhances property values and fattens commissions, several realtor-supported websites presume to rank schools and districts. Sites like GreatSchools and SchoolDigger perform a partial service by aggregating public data and presenting it in a format more user-friendly than most state departments of education can manage.
Unfortunately, providing that data without useful context invites prospective home buyers to draw false conclusions. For example, people assume that schools with high test scores are better than schools with lower scores. That can be true, but often achievement disparities merely reflect student demographics. Affluent kids generally score higher than impoverished pupils. Asian and white students tend to outperform black, Latino and Native American kids. When people describe a school as “good” or “safe,” they usually mean that privileged children dominate the student body.
Realtor-supported sites rarely provide the most valid measure of educational quality: student achievement growth from year to year. A school that helps kids with remedial skills achieve proficiency is objectively better than an institution that inherits capable students and merely maintains their competence. Teachers in the first instance truly added value, whereas educators in the second case merely coasted.
Sadly, GreatSchools and SchoolDigger ignore these nuances. By basing their ratings on absolute student achievement, these sites stoke common prejudices and encourage home buyers to avoid certain neighborhoods. Thus, sponsoring realtors actively promote residential segregation, educational inequality and social injustice.